Sunday, April 02, 2017

Jungle, Ruins, Tacos - in One Word: Mexico

How about vanilla, senora! Good, Mexican vanilla extract? You want some? Good price!”
Christmas ornaments? Good price? 20 dollars US” - said a grandpa in Costa Maya on our way back to our ship.
Senora! Senor! A hat? How about a hat! We have great hats! Good price!” - a teenager chased us down on our way to Tulum.
Tacos, senora! Good chicken tacos, senora. They are recommended, senora! Lunch time. Would you like some tacos? Tito (that was our guide in Tulum) said you should eat here, senora!

We knew that was a lie, because Tito has given us a 20 minute spiel that if we were to eat anywhere in Tulum, we should “ONLY eat at this place with a beautiful, authentic Mexican name, called 'Frosty's'. This is the only place with nice, honest people. You go somewhere else, they tell you it's chicken, and it's actually iguana meat, or God knows what else. You should only eat at 'Frosty's'!” - so we knew the kid was lying.

Mexico felt like we were trying to dodge a massive rain of locusts jumping in front of us and tempting us to buy pretty much everything. Except the locusts were humans, 5 feet tall and taller. Very persistent and very brave to bully a pretty sizable American crowd into buying virtually everything.

Mexico reminded me a lot of Turkey: people live for commerce and if I were to describe this interaction in one word, both for Turkey and for Mexico, the word would be “haggle.” Everything is not only for sale, but also open for discussion about how much it should cost.

Aside from that, Mexico was a fun stop for us. The Mexican riviera in Costa Maya, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen resounded with local music as if the whole area was on vacation or partying for the most important life event. It was Spring Break for many people in the States and Canada, so it could have been an extra special time of the year, but something told me that music is just a permanent state of living for Mexicans. 

Costa Maya

People are friendly when they look at you as a bottomless wallet, and they turn around pretty quickly in forgetfulness right after you say “no” a few dozen times. Mexico was the only place where our guide himself tried to sell us something, which left a little bit of a bitter taste in our mouths.

But aside from the very aggressive merchant culture, Mexico was a happy place, sunny, delicious, full of history and natural beauty!

On our first day, we docked in Costa Maya. After about an hour ride by bus, we were dropped in the middle of the Mexican jungle, to see the Mayan ruins at Chacchoben. Chacchoben is not as famous as Tulum or Chichen Itza, so it was the least touristy journey through the jungle. 

At Chacchoben, in the jungle, we saw these two trees, one growing around the other. Our guide, Izichiel (our guide in Chacchoben), said "Only one of the trees will survive. Not both. We don't know which one. It's just like marriage." 

Walking in 95F degree weather (and 90% humidity) through the jungle, at noon, is everything and nothing like I ever imagined. The jungle is green and overgrown, with bushes several tens of feet high, with vines and palm trees engrossing everything. The humidity is palpable, like you breathe water, very warm and stagnant water, not air. The shade is still hot and humid. It offers no reprieve from heat. There is no wind swishing the much vegetation which seems to be closing in on you, like moving walls. There are noises. Very sharp and loud scream-like noises: we asked what they were and were told they could be birds or monkeys and if they are monkeys to leave them alone, 'cause they bite.

We were also told that we could see jaguars or pythons. I put on bug spray because I felt like something was biting my legs, but I did not see what it was. It was just a lot of small bites, sharp like needle sticks all over my skin on my legs and arms. The jungle was much as what I imagined, but multiplied by a thousand – every sensation was so much stronger and enhanced because it was happening right then and there.

Although the ruins at Tulum were breathtaking, because of the whole site sitting on this high cliff on the edge of the bluer than blue Atlantic Ocean and because the jungle was not so much overgrown there, the ruins of Chacchoben were amazing because of their remoteness and in the way they were nestled in the heart of the jungle. We walked on these dirt paths through the jungle and we saw the “town hall” space, where the Mayans were gathering for special events which seemed to have been built around the vegetation of the jungle. We saw multiple buildings (in ruins, of course), and several temples built throughout the city. We learned that the temples were solid hard inside, not hollow – just layers and layers of stone, cut in rectangular shape, with what, we're not sure to this day, and stacked in pyramid-like formations.

Chacchoben is probably as old as 200BC with the buildings having been finished around 700AD. We climbed one of the pyramids, and it was steep with tall steps between the levels. When we reached the top, there were yet other temples at that elevation, still, built on top of the first platform we just got done climbing. The whole place feels like a conglomerate between rocks and jungle vegetation, intertwined with each other. 

Climbing a pyramid in Chacchoben.  

When finished climbing, yet another pyramid atop the first one - in Chacchoben 

Growing from the jungle floor, amongst the ruins - the "town hall" area in Chacchoben.

On the second day in Mexico, we docked in Cozumel, and then took a boat to Playa del Carmen, and then a bus onward to see the Mayan ruins in Tulum.

Tulum felt like the resort where the Mayans were going when they were on vacation. It is one of the newer Mayan establishments, with its civilization peak in the 13th and 15th centuries. This shows from the condition the site is in: it is mostly well preserved, with some architectural details still intact. 

Temple with standing columns in Tulum. 

The site is perched on this tall cliff, on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. One of the temples is called “The Temple of the God who Descends from Heaven”, and the whole place truly feels like that: like some sort of outer world deity descended on this sun drenched plateau and built this amazingly perfectly planned community of temples and abodes. 

Temple of the God of Wind, at Tulum.

The temples here reminded me of Greek temples – with large columns in front and enormous porticos, only these are made of rock, not marble. 

Temple in Tulum, with portico and columns. 

The grounds are almost exclusively taken over by iguanas. It's impossible to shoot any inch of this place and not find a creature in it. They are everywhere, including the roofs of newer buildings. 

Iguanas on the thatch roof of a public bathroom in Tulum 

Really hot iguana in Tulum. We learned that they hate shade, rain, or cold, so they were soaking up the sun that day. 

Driving through the Mexican countryside offers a similar journey to the ones we experienced in other Central American countries (Belize and Honduras): lots of poor neighborhoods, lots of decrepit infrastructure, but lots more opportunities for commerce which is a Mexican trait alone. At every corner, you'll see a taqueria, a merchant of some sort, a club, or a boutique. 

Taqueria in Playa del Carmen 

Gorgeous wooden bar in Costa Maya 

Tito was not right in the sense that we didn't need leather cartouches with our name written in Mayan to feel like we visited Tulum, but he was right about the food at Frosty's: the fish tacos were indeed delicious. I have heard that in Mexico they do not drench every dish (including a taco) in cheese – that this is an American thing. And that is correct. The fish and chicken (for my husband) tacos came with white rice and black refried beans on a plain tortilla with one whole slice of tomato and one slice of avocado. No other 'surprises' in there, no Spanish rice, no yellow rice. Just plain ingredients, but the combination of it all was outstanding: fresh and tasty. They gave us salsa fresca with our home-made corn chips, but warned us that “this is ay-yay-yay salsa”. And indeed they were not lying. I took one forktipfull of salsa to taste and I thought my tongue touched sulfuric acid and the spot that touched the fork would be a hole. I was not sure who in the whole wide world would have a stomach for that kind of salsa. Tito, however, explained to us “that any breakfast should have rice and beans and should be really, really hot. This is what makes a good breakfast – the heat.” 

Fish tacos at Frosty's in Tulum. 

Despite of the aggressive “buy it all” style of Mexico tourism which could be a deterrent when you are not a shopper at all, I wanted to stay longer, and I wanted to go back as soon as I have another chance. There was something welcoming and friendly about it all, and something very mysterious, in need to be discovered, little by little, like peeling an onion, about Mexico.

I was amazed at who the Mayans considered to be “the upper class”: it was the warriors and the scientists. As a culture, they were obsessed with astronomy, so their temple grounds are all aligned with the stars and the planets, and they all have meaningful stories behind why each building is placed where it is. They considered astronomers, mathematicians and doctors to be the upper class and they gave them the best homes. Amazing: 2000 years ago, the Mayans revered science. A certain someone who has lots of power now in our world has not gotten the memo yet that scientists know. Made me wonder if we all lived in vain all this time.

There was a joie de vivre about Mexico that stayed with me days and weeks later: everything is a party. Life is a party, although life is very serious, too – they are very serious about their history and about their families and making a decent living for them. But they also play their music and make a joke or two, every chance they get.

Life, talk, good food, history, pristine nature – this was Mexico in a nutshell.  
This  pretty much summarizes our Mexican experience. Click the picture for the album depicting this trips.

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